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The liquid lifeline of a city

Martin Poppmeier

Working Hard / Hardly Working

Every great city was founded when an early settlement first situated itself along a river or by a body of water; Paris has its romantic Seine, Vienna the mighty Danube, Rome the historic Tiber. And Dublin? The humble Liffey, of course.

A collage of Dublin’s Liffey and Timișoara’s Bega Canal. Image by Martin Poppmeier

The Liffey is the spine which holds the capital city. Along this artery, the quays have always acted as a natural route from east to west. However, making your way along the quays, whether walking, cycling, or driving, you feel as though you’re always fighting for space.

Our city’s name is in itself a reference to the body of water that it was founded upon - Dubh Linn. These rivers helped to shape the cities that grew around them. For much of history, the development of these cities has been intrinsically linked to their relationship with water. Acting as a main artery, the coursing rivers acted as sources of nutrition, hydration, sanitation, paths for trade, and most intriguing for us, as public spaces. 


Looking at a plan of Dublin, we can see how the city grew from the river. James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, as Viceroy of Ireland during the seventeenth century, helped to define the city's relationship with the Liffey by developing the quays, the longest of which still holds his namesake; Ormond Quay. Inspired by his travels through France and the opulent grandeur of Paris, he declared that buildings should now face the river – as they do on the Seine – whereas before they turned their backs on it. However, despite this early urban intervention, it is these quays – these public spaces – that this author believes to be hardly working


The Liffey is the spine that holds the capital city. Along this artery, the quays have always acted as a natural route from east to west. However, making your way along the quays, whether walking, cycling, or driving, you feel as though you’re always fighting for space; for your right to the road. The car takes priority along the quays, dominating the space, and even acting as another barrier and hazard to pedestrians and cyclists. When walking on the quays, at the river's edge, you feel trapped; you’re given a narrow path and are surrounded both by the natural barrier of the water and the man-made danger of traffic, oftentimes impeded by bus stops, public bins or the – although beautiful – mature trees planted on the footpath; another thing fighting for its own space. The few cafes and eateries that are along the quays – businesses that by nature are outward facing – have little or no room to present themselves, further adding to the transitory nature of the street. 


Running west-east, the Liffey can be described as an avenue made of water. Framed on either side by its river-facing buildings, it still maintains its Georgian character. A style that is elegant but also austere in its outward restraint. These many facades are built right up to the property boundary line, making an already narrow footpath seem smaller. They are often void of any relief [1] which can make them seem to mesh together to create an impression of a singular wall, closing you in. There are, however, some points of respite to these issues; the meshed singular wall is broken up at times by certain inlets like at Liffey Street or on Wood Quay by the Civic Offices. The Liffey boardwalk, by McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects and opened in 2000, was an ambitious and innovative project designed to address the chaos of the quays, but, unfortunately, it is generally avoided due to anti-social behaviour. 


In direct comparison to Dublin, Timișoara is another city that was founded on a river – this time, the Timiș River in Transylvania. A smaller city, comparable in population to Belfast, its relationship to its river through its waterfronts takes a different approach. The city in its modern form developed from a star-shaped fortified settlement which sat on a raised bank of the river amid marshlands. Over time, as the city grew beyond the capabilities of its walls, it began through hydrographical projects to drain the marshlands and create a new waterway in place of the river, the Bega Canal. 


When strolling along the waterside it’s easy to forget that the landscape you’re walking through is highly engineered; tree-filled parklands populate the sloping embankments either side of the canal. The water level sits lower than the city level, further creating a sense of separation from the busy city and cars that run along the roads above the embankments. Large wide steps leading down to the river invite you to sit by the water’s edge. There are restaurants and bars with terraces interspersed along the embankments. Considered civic structures with bike paths, benches, and well-designed lighting at night allow it to take on another life in the evening – there is even a nightclub built into the underside of a bridge. Boat tours lazily cruise up and down the water adding to the sense of relaxation. To say that this space is working hard seems almost ironic because the atmosphere is so natural and effortless, as though it’s not working at all. 


I don’t mean to suggest that the solution for Dublin’s quays is the Bega waterway – the two are almost the antithesis of each other. Through varying geography and historical development, the two offer very different atmospheres. However, I think that the city’s quays have enormous potential, and there is much that can be done to improve them. Generosity in pedestrianised areas for new developments can attract more businesses, leading to more footfall and in turn help to dissuade any antisocial activity. Further planting of broadleaves would complement the existing mature trees. A good public space is one that can accommodate a variety of activities and functions – the quays in Dublin are still playing catch up.

Large wide steps leading down to the river invite you to sit by the water’s edge. There are restaurants and bars with terraces interspersed along the embankments. Considered civic structures with bike paths, benches, and well-designed lighting at night allow it to take on another life in the evening ...

Working Hard / Hardly Working is an article series designed to promote the use and organisation of public space. By presenting two examples – one which works well, and one which needs to work harder – it highlights the importance of clever design, and how considered decisions can make our shared spaces better. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact

Working Hard / Hardly Working is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.


1. The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane.


Martin Poppmeier

Martin Poppmeier is a student of Architecture at UCD. He has worked in Ireland and Romania where he has developed an interest in historic urban fabrics and conservation.

Related articles

Engaging with water: Arthur's Quay, Limerick

Denise Murray
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Denise Murray
James Haynes

What is it that makes a good public space? We know one when we see it but often find it hard to define why one place works and another one doesn’t. Arthur's Quay Park in Limerick is a sort of accidental public space; it was never planned and yet it exists, anchoring the north east corner of the Georgian grid of Limerick city, balanced by the People’s Park to the south west. The park was an incomplete Georgian Square, planned to be surrounded by houses but never finished due to the Great Famine (1845-52).

Arthur's Quay Park

Hardly working

Arthur's Quay Park sits on a piece of reclaimed land, originally a harbour, and was filled in by Limerick Corporation in the 1970s to create a car park, before subsequently, in the late 1980s, being transformed from a car park to a civic space; completed with a tourist office as a focal point (the tourist office won the RIAI Gold medal in 1989-91). The park is greatly valued by the people of Limerick, however, there is also a deep sense of frustration as the space never seems to quite live up to its potential. Various interventions have taken place over the years, such as the removal of planted railings to address safety concerns and improve visibility, but it still feels as though it is an underperforming public space. And in recent years, with the boarding up of the tourist office, it lacks a sense of purpose. The park has one great asset in its favour though – the spectacular views up the river towards King John’s Castle and the mountains beyond. Notwithstanding this, it still feels disconnected from the city core and remains remote from most people’s mental map of Limerick city.

Working hard

Hamburg is also a city defined by its relationship with water. The advent of container shipping has meant that the main commercial port has moved further down river, leaving the historic port area available for transformation into a new city known as HafenCity. This area has been transformed over the last thirty years and one of the first decisions taken was to raise the new ground level of buildings to protect them from flooding. The landscape is arranged on three planes, ensuring that there is always a level that provides safe access during times of flooding, while for the rest of the time the landscape tiers down to the original harbour line, ensuring that the citizens of Hamburg are able to stay connected to the river that is at the heart of their city.

HafenCity, Magellan Terrace

The quayside spaces in HafenCity are part of a continuous promenade with a variety of inviting public spaces, abundant greenery, and strong connections to the water. Some spaces change with the tides, while others are at a higher level providing a prospect over the river. There are also new water features integrated into the landscape providing a very immediate opportunity to engage directly with water.  

It is not just the innovative landscape design that makes HafenCity such a success, it is the buildings that surround it, providing places for people to live, work, and play in the city. There is a very intimate relationship between the new buildings in HafenCity and the quayside. The space is overlooked by six- to eight-storey apartment and office buildings, the ground floors of which are generally active, containing retail and commercial uses. The traffic has been carefully planned to minimise the impact of the car, allowing connections between buildings and animated public spaces.

Lessons to be learned

While the scale of HafenCity is vast in comparison to Arthur's Quay, there are some key lessons that can be learned. Namely, that it is possible to plan for flooding without cutting a city off from its river, and that a quayside is a space of transition that should be thought of as part of a riverfront promenade rather than an isolated space.

For Arthur's Quay to reach its potential as a space that supports the life of the city, it needs to be more connected and integrated into the wider urban landscape. This will mean transforming the surrounding car-dominated highway into a civilised pedestrian friendly street that can serve as a route for traffic that is accessing the city centre, instead of supporting through traffic that does nothing to contribute to the life and activity of the city. In addition, the surrounding buildings should be redeveloped or reimagined so that they engage with the park through vibrant ground floor uses – offering shops, restaurants, and cafes. Convivial spaces with terraces overlooking the river can serve a new population living, working, and playing on the floors above.

What are we waiting for, the quay is the key.

Arthur's Quay
Working Hard / Hardly Working

What makes a vibrant, successful public space? In this article, architect Denise Murray considers what changes might be necessary for Arthurs’ Quay Park, Limerick, and the surrounding area to evolve into a place that better serves its citizens. HafenCity provides some examples of alternative ways to provide public spaces while addressing the issues of climate change and flooding.


North Street, Belfast

Mark Hackett
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Mark Hackett
James Haynes

Located in the centre of Belfast, North Street is one of the older arteries of the city. Over the last three decades the street has been at risk, blighted by developers’ land banking and through forced vacancies. In large part, this process was initiated by government strategies in support of retail and the promise of "comprehensive redevelopment" powers and grants. The first developer to tackle the street bought up and emptied much of it, while their agents drew up one set of overblown and unrealisable plans after another; at one point pursuing the incorporation of the public street into a private shopping mall. Some may be surprised then that I see North Street as a space that is "working hard" despite its current perception as a place that is "hardly working".


The 2004 arson attack on the listed Art Deco North Street Arcade marked a key moment in the street’s history, destroying a unique and vibrant route to Donegall Street and the city’s "cultural quarter". Many of the art groups based there were burned out and lost everything. At the time of the arson, the site was coincidentally the centrepiece of a major planning application for a department store and accompanying 750-bay car park. This development failed in the 2008 crash, however, it has been followed by repeated iterations scuppered by bad loans before being passed on again to another developer.


Keats and Chapman, North Street

Despite this, the street and its buildings are still here, closed shutters are textured with artwork high and low, a few businesses hang on. Tenants such as the Fenderesky Art Gallery at No. 31 are heroes of the city. The nearby bookshop, Keats and Chapman, maintains its position as an enduring independent. And to the streets end, Brennan’s chippie still exists, cooking in real lard and clasping its cult fame as the place where Rihanna danced on tables for the video of We Found Love. While masquerading in the clothes of decline, the street is full of life, a life characterised by the action of individuals. Through its continued existence, it holds the potential for something new.

Opposite the arcade, the curved Garfield Street intersects and adds further charm despite the listed Garfield Building being encased in dense scaffolding. Underneath this lies the remnants of the Tivoli Barbers Shop, a third-generation business now in a temporary premises on North Street. Over 400 people came through the original Tivoli Barbers doors for snippets of live opera during the second Belfast Culture Night in 2010, an illustration of how in the right circumstances these streets can work hard and support that which is already there.

The meeting place of North Street and Garfield Street

History plays a similar role in maintaining the significance of these places and their potential to work hard again. At the top of North Street, the striking Art Deco Bank of Ireland remains, and is now the subject of a major public investment programme, while at the other end, the Assembly Building at Four Corners holds strong, remembered as the place where Belfast's mercantile class were persuaded not to engage in the slave trade. Both are places of memory pivotal to the current and future history of the city.


Some adept infill and repair is all the street needs with a key move being the reconnection of the arcade through an otherwise long city block. On the south side of North Street, a large vacant plot cries out for the creation of an urban green space, a crucial move in a contemporary city pleading for the lungs it is missing. In the last decade, this northern sector of the city has seen a resurgence of its nightlife through the MAC arts centre and the new university building bringing in thousands of students to the city core. North Street has the potential to be part of this, holding both latent joys of old and an ambition to do more than survive.


Belfast has had a number of large shopping malls imposed into its street grid; informed by misguided strategies for renewal that have removed streets, squares, and vital connections. Castle Court was such a scheme from 1985-90 and Victoria Square took a similar approach between 2002-08. Both wiped out key civic squares; spaces the city now badly lacks. The North Street area was to be the third of these retail interventions.


Few, if any, of the city’s structural problems have been addressed during the last three decades of development ‘churn’. The key to understanding Belfast are the edges created following decades of ring road building, large urban housing clearances, and barrier making. No credible strategy or work has advocated for active living in the city, reconnection and much needed green spaces, street trees, nor the reinvention of the wide ring road that currently acts as a grey moat around the city centre. These failures to make urban repair hold the city's natural renewal back. The city engages in slow clumsy interventions but neglects to bring the whole back to health.

2011 mapping of Belfast’s ‘grey doughnut’, a zone of ring roads and motorways planned in early 1960’s but only inserted into the city in the 1980’s in the midst of conflict and rehousing schemes. Most of the city's arterial streets lost their active frontages in these clearances with pockets of housing  rebuilt in low density enclaves. This leaves much of the city centre like an island disconnected from the wider city, reinforcing car use and inhibiting walking.


North Street then is a reminder that our cities are made of street grids and connections, buildings form and line these streets in a symbiotic relationship of residence and activity. Like any patient, Belfast needs a good diagnosis and careful nursing. Despite all of this neglect, North Street endures. It is resilient, working hard, waiting. As I walk down North Street, I am filled with hope and the words of Gloria Gaynor ringing in my ears: ‘I will survive’.

Working Hard / Hardly Working

Through an exploration of North Street (Belfast), architect Mark Hackett discusses how considering a single street can aid our understanding of the wider cityscape. In understanding the continuity of places such as North Street, Hackett presents resilience as an important strength of the street as part of its role within a connective grid.


Whose home? Let's discuss homeownership ideology

Julia Meazza Clarke
Working Hard / Hardly Working
Julia Meazza Clarke
Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell

The pervasive belief that owning one’s home is the only path to qualitative living has not only hindered the emergence of alternative forms of tenure, but has influenced the under-reform of the rental market for decades. Why is it that in a post-modern world, in which so many resources no longer have to be owned, but can be shared or rented, homes still have to be owned to feel truly ours? It is worthwhile taking a step, back and above, and looking at how homeownership ideology has served a precise purpose in governments’ agendas. 

As seen over and over throughout history, the link between politics and housing is an untieable one. During the twentieth century, governments began to market the ownership of one’s home as a basic need of society. Interestingly, as Richard Ronalds writes in The Ideology of Homeownership, there is no evidence to suggest that owning one’s home is an indigenous need of the modern individual [1]. Rather, it consists simply of a preference, forged by policy-making and social norms. The consolidation of such preference and the marginalisation of other forms of housing provision through specific policies can be observed predominantly in anglophone countries in the latter half of the previous century. In England, the Conservative movement recognised the full potential of homeownership as an activator of social stability. For a citizen to own one’s home meant having an active stake in the state and an invested interest in maintaining lifelong employment. The owner-occupied home becomes the only other space in which the labour class spends time outside the workplace, and family life inside the home becomes a societal ideal. Homeowners, through their choice of tenure, were believed to form an instantaneous conservative constituency [2]. Moreover, Kemeny (1992) contends that the preference towards homeownership stemmed from a re-moralisation around privatism and individualism. 

Both Protestant and Catholic beliefs favoured a tenure that facilitated privacy and family life, reinforcing the perception that the ownership of one’s home was the sole path to virtuous living. The ‘superior’ idea of privacy materialised tangibly in the structure of the middle-class home with its dividing walls, separated accesses, series of rooms, gardens, and hedges. Private property was seen as an individual right and homeownership ideology became intrinsically linked to class perception, exacerbating class differentiation. Additionally, rented tenures became stigmatised as precarious and ontologically insecure, further solidifying homeownership’s superior status. The marketed idea of owning one’s home becomes an obdurate ideal and a “self-fulfilling prophecy” [3].

With the commodification of housing, from being a tool for social stabilisation, the purchase of one’s home brings forth another phenomenon: the mass entrance of the population into the financial sphere. Arguably, the government's push for privatism in housing could be attributed to its desire to distance itself from housing provision responsibilities, capitalising on the public’s inclination towards homeownership. With homeownership becoming the preferred form of tenure, and with a significant part of the population becoming homeowners and entering the financial market through private mortgages, housing prices start to soar. As housing became closely tied to processes of consumption, the market became the primary agent that facilitated the freedom and progress that the middle class required. Saskia Sassen [4] writes that the financialisation of mortgages for modest-income households becomes a circuit for high finance for the benefit of investors, with a total disregard for the homeowners involved. The appreciation of housing becomes interlinked with the foundation of the global economy [5]. An additional bias is made through the middle class’s perception that estate assets would be of eternally growing value and that investing in a home is not a mere need but an opportunity to store wealth. Owning one’s home is now perceived not only as preferable but also as highly desirable because of the monetary gains associated with it. The idea of a ‘home of one’s own’ was no longer simply seen as a practical necessity but also as a marker for self-identification and self-realisation [6]. As a result of these complex, somewhat stochastic processes, the rented market lost all desirability and remained under-reformed.  

Since post-war times, homeownership ideology has grown roots so deep in the public imagination that despite it now being financially impossible for a new middle-income family to purchase a house in a larger city, the paradigm remains unquestioned. In Ireland, The recent unsustainability of homeownership and the shortcomings of the market-based provision of housing are evident in the numbers contained in a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) [7]. The report states that, in Ireland, while 80% of adults over forty years old own the home they live in, only a third of adults under forty are homeowners. 

High rents, precarious contracts, and a shortage of rental housing make it virtually impossible for young adults to make consistent plans for their futures. The imperialist manner in which homeownership-centric policies have dominated the public and private housing provision system has resulted in a residualised rental market and a deeply undiversified housing landscape. The trajectory that homeownership ideology has traced in the twentieth century tells a compelling story of how policies influence preference. The problem of the persistence of a preference becomes evident when the ideology gains so much ideological weight that it becomes self-evident and perceived as ‘natural’ (Kemeny, 1995), not allowing other strategies to even be considered or imagined. Architects must detect the fallacies of the standardised ownership-based housing system and advocate for additional ownership solutions, to create a counter-speculative strategy for housing. 

Architects and housing experts must not limit their focus solely on typology, because the systemic issues embedded within the housing crisis will not be improved by alternative typological formulas alone. We need a fundamental revaluation of how we own and access housing, not solely relying on a bottom-up process through the work of building cooperatives, but also through the development of national frameworks for alternative ownership models. By challenging the entrenched preference for homeownership, we can begin to imagine forms of tenure that truly meet the needs of our diverse society.

Working Hard / Hardly Working

In the attempt to understand today’s housing challenges, it is worthwhile to explore the concept of homeownership Ideology and critically assess its role in shaping an undiversified housing landscape.



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